Warrior Prophets 2: Assassin
Chapter 2: Trial of a Tribe
“We shall not relinquish the men of Givaah,” Prince Giltar announced at the assembly of Elders of Benjamin. “This is an internal tribal matter and we shall administer our own justice. The other tribes shall not dictate our actions.” Giltar, grey and proud, stood at the head of the council circle in the House of Elders. Two dozen men, with grey and white beards, sat in a circle on stone-hewn benches. A dozen torches protruded from a dozen pillars, brightening the white-washed walls of the chamber in the early summer evening.
“Will you go to war to defend such a right?” Ehud, the youngest of the assembly, stood up from the other side of the circle. “These men of Givaah are depraved. They have committed an act that only a child of Sodom would defend. I for one would hand them over to the tribes if it will appease them. Are the laws of Judah so different than our laws? Remember, it was a daughter of Judah that was the victim. They too have the right to justice.”
“Do you speak for justice, son of Gerah?” Giltar responded sharply. “Or for convenience? Or is it fear that drives you, Ehud? Do you so fear the might of the other tribes? Have you so little faith in the justice of our position?”
“There is faith, and there is wisdom, Giltar. I fear this decision lacks both.”
“You insult me in my own chamber?”
“I insult no man. I merely fear a disastrous decision.”
“Ehud, you are a trusted man of arms and a faithful delegate. This is the decision of the council. Except for Ehud, is there any man here that challenges this decision?” Giltar addressed the council. Silence answered Giltar’s question.
“It is agreed then. This is the position of the sons of Benjamin.” Giltar looked straight at Ehud and smiled grimly. “And I nominate you, Ehud son of Gerah, to be our messenger to the tribes at their meeting in Mitzpeh. As our official representative, you shall convey to them as follows: We are mortified. We are highly disturbed by this horrendous action by the men of Givaah. They have assaulted a woman of Judah, a concubine though she may have been, in a fashion that is indeed most appalling. The tribes should rest assured that these men will be judged and convicted according to the Laws of Moses. The tribes’ representatives are welcome to view our court deliberations. However, we shall not, under any circumstances, allow others to override the system set up by Moses and established by Joshua his disciple. We shall not placate, we shall not bend to the overbearing will of our brothers, and we shall not bow before their threats. If they wish to test our swords, they shall find that this youngest of tribes is not without strength. Do I make myself clear, young Ehud?”
“You are clear, Prince Giltar, though we may yet regret such an unbending position. I request the right to interview the men in custody, as the tribes will surely ask me for details, and I would prefer to give them first hand impressions.”
“That is acceptable. Speak to the prisoners. Take whom you wish to Mitzpeh with you. In the meantime know that we shall prepare for war. Do not fool yourself that the case of this concubine is the root of the matter. The tribes have resented our ascendancy. They have ever pushed for unification and imposition of their will – especially your friends the Judeans. Yes, I choose you especially because of your friendship to the Nachshon clan and his grandson Boaz. Perhaps you shall persuade them to desist, but I have little hope. This has been a storm long in the coming and the Judeans have found their rallying call. Take swift horses, as in their fury they may even strike down a peaceful delegate. Be strong and of good courage, Ehud. This Council of Elders is dismissed.”
Ehud strode quickly out of the chamber and found Tamir lounging outside amongst various captains and officers. Tamir had arrived that afternoon after having successfully delivered the copper from Moav to Ehud’s smithy.
“Tamir, find Yakshal and tell him we need four fast horses. We ride tonight to Mitzpeh.”
“Are we going to war?” Tamir asked with a mixture of excitement and fear.
“Not if I can stop it,” Ehud answered. “Now hurry up. You two did a good job with the copper from Eglon and you might as well see how this disaster develops. Go on now. Meet back here by the end of the first watch. See to provisions as well. I will bring our fourth rider.”
Ehud found the house where the accused men were held. It was an old squat stone structure that had belonged to a widow whose name Ehud could not recall. The house had been converted to a prison years ago, as the number of people awaiting trial for violent crimes grew. Most prisoners were sentenced to lashes. It was a painful and humiliating punishment, but rarely satisfying to the criminal’s victims or their kin. However, it was the best the judges could do with what were often few reliable witnesses. The number of repeat offenders had also grown. These coarse men had become immune to the lashes. It did little to dissuade them.
Ehud knocked on the door of the house.
“Who seeks entry?” A guard within asked.
“Ehud son of Gerah, by order of the Council of Elders.”
The guard unbolted the door. He wore leather armor and held a spear in one hand. A long sword adorned his belt. Ehud entered the poorly lit house where just a handful of torches jutted sporadically from the walls. He saw two dozen men shackled to each other and the wall. The smell of unwashed bodies hit Ehud like a wave. Ignoring the foul odor, the blacksmith in Ehud first sought to see the quality of the shackles. He immediately spotted his own handiwork, some of the first shackles the tribe ever used. He remembered regretfully their need and his distaste in creating them. Other blacksmiths copied his design and he was just as happy to let others make such instruments of imprisonment. He noted the work of Emri, one of his former apprentices, shoddy, but functional. Emri never bothered to hammer consistently and Ehud could see the uneven texture of many of the shackles. Ehud saw shackles that were cracked at the edges. That must be the work of Bargel, Ehud thought. Bargel rarely got his casting temperature right and his work often cracked too early.
Ehud then looked at the prisoners in their shackles of various qualities. There was a dull, yet rough look in their eyes. Their hair was long and unkempt. Their beards had pieces of leaves, grass and food caught within. These were thieves and marauders that had not performed a day of honest work in years. Ehud sought the cleanest looking man. He found a tall, bulky man with stray hairs of white in his black beard.
“What is your name?” Ehud kicked the slumbering man on the floor.
“Who’s askin’?” the man asked opening his eyes. They were black. The white of his eyes was a web of red.
“I am Ehud son of Gerah and by the authority of the council I ask that you answer my questions.”
Ehud kicked the man hard in the shin.
“Ow! Could’ve asked nicer,” the man growled.
“What is your name?”
“Znumeh, tell me what happened that night.”
“We were just havin’ some fun, that’s all.”
“Fun you call it? Raping and killing a woman? “
“We didn’t kill no woman. She was still alive an kickin’ when we finished with her. Anyways, was her man we really wanted, but that coward threw her to us. Good lookin’ woman too. We just couldn’t resist.”
“Sick. You are all sick. All of you!”
“Now listen here smith. We know you. Don’t go on lecturin’ us now. You Elders think you’re all righteous and tellin’ us what to do. But Givaah is our town. We own it. We do what we like. Strangers come to town, they need to pay some dues. With their flesh. They don’t like it, then don’t come to our town. You Elders make a big fuss, give us some lashes, but then you’ll be gone, back to your farms and sheep, and Givaah will still be ours. Go bother someone else.”
Ehud kicked Znumeh hard in the groin. Znumeh doubled over into fetal position on the floor, groaning in pain.
“You idiot! Your lust may well bring war upon us! The Judeans want blood! If it were up to me I would hand the lot of you over to the other tribes and let them kill you, but the Elders are making a political stand out of this debacle.”
“Didn’t kill nobody. Just havin’ fun.” Znumeh groaned as Ehud stomped out of the prison.
Ehud, Yakshal, Tamir and the fourth rider reached the mountain of Mitzpeh at the break of dawn. Hundreds of thousands of small tents littered the craggy landscape. Leather-clad soldiers exited their tents and proceeded to break camp. Tens of thousands of new soldiers from the eleven other tribes arrived from the four compass points of the land of Israel to join the hustle and bustle of the camp. Enterprising youngsters roamed up and down the impromptu campground, selling fresh pita and loaves of bread. There was a certain bawdy excitement about the gathering. Young men who had grown up on tales of the conquest of Canaan arrived with their father’s swords. Old soldiers who had never adjusted to farm life came with a wildness in their eyes.
“Our prince received her arm,” a young man of eastern Menasheh was telling a crowd of soldiers. He spoke with a lisp characteristic to his tribe.
“Which one?” a fat soldier asked.
“Does it matter?” the young Menashite answered. “He rode throughout our towns carrying the smelly tender arm. He proclaimed at each town: ‘This is the arm of a young maiden of Judah! She was raped and killed by the men of Benjamin. Has such a horror ever occurred amongst the Children of Israel? Shall we allow such a deed to go unpunished? We march upon Benjamin to demand justice!’”
“We got her leg!” the fat soldier shouted. “We shall kill those Benjaminites! I heard it was a whole town of them that raped the girl. Those Benjaminites have had it coming for a while. Why those arrogant ruffians! They think they can get away with murder. We will show them!”
“It seems war has been decided,” Yakshal whispered to Ehud as they passed the excited group. The scene was repeated over and over as the Benjaminites made their way through the camp. Groups described different grizzly body parts they had seen and how all the able-bodied men had rallied to the call of war. It hadn’t hurt that the early summer harvest was done and most of the men could spare a few weeks until the late harvest would start in earnest. Shepherds were notoriously absent from the army, but many accompanied the tribes, offering from their flock to the hungry men.
The riders reached the top of Mitzpeh and dismounted. Eleven large tents of the princes formed a circle on the clearing. A twelfth, smaller, but more ornate tent was set slightly beyond the circle. It would be the tent of Pinhas, the High Priest. Inside the circle of the tents was a large circle of men. The eleven princes were in the innermost circle in crisp white robes, together with their generals and captains of thousands. Surrounding them were captains of hundreds, and other judges and officers. Ehud, with his small group, squeezed themselves through the crowd to the innermost circle. He found himself between the delegation of the tribe of Judah on his right and the High Priest with his retinue on his left. Pinhas wore the beautiful blue robe of his office with the breastplate of the precious stones upon him.
“You are brave to have come, Ehud,” a tall redhead whispered to Ehud.
“Boaz!” Ehud embraced quickly with his former comrade. “The situation looks dire.”
“Indeed. Are you then the representative of your tribe? Did your prince fear coming?”
“He felt I would best represent our tribe on this issue, though we have little hope. Who is that?” Ehud pointed at a tall yet portly man stepping into the middle of the circle.
“Why, that is your accuser, the Levite, Gheda, the one whose concubine was killed. We know him well. He is a man of no small influence. And the girl was my cousin, Dramital from Bethlehem. Our Prince Elimelech is incensed. If you wish to forestall trouble, speak quickly.”
“To avenge a crime of national proportions, we have assembled,” Gheda proclaimed to the princes. “We have gathered as one man, to exact justice, vengeance and retribution from Benjamin our brother, for the hurt, the pain, the unforgivable sin it has committed upon the body of Israel. Shall we let such crimes go unnoted? Shall those that protect evil remain without blame? Is there any here that is not of like mind?”
“We are not,” Ehud stepped into the circle.
“And who might you be, whelp?” Gheda retorted savagely.
“I am Ehud son of Gerah, messenger of Prince Gilton of Benjamin and representative of our council of Elders, and I say that you err.”
“I err? I err!? Pray tell in what do I err, young man? Do not the pieces of my beloved lay strewn throughout the tribes of Israel? Was I not attacked and almost killed by the vicious murderers of your tribe? Has not your tribe refused to bring these murderers to justice?”
“He lies!” Ehud addressed the princes, realizing who needed convincing.
“Do you know who I am?” Gheda’s pale face reddened. “Do you know my ancestry, you from the youngest of tribes? How dare you accuse me? What evidence, what witnesses do you bring that you would defame me so?”
“I bring your host,” Ehud stated, and motioned for the fourth rider, an old man, to step into the circle.
“Princes of Israel,” Ehud addressed the princes, looking primarily at Elimelech and Pinhas, the High Priest. “This is not a court and this is not a trial in the formal sense. Rest assured that we shall try the guilty from our tribe and they shall receive the maximum punishment according to the Law of Moses, the law that binds us all. However, given the extreme circumstances and sensitivity of the crimes that were committed I have brought this witness here, and I will testify myself as to my findings, so that the truth will be disclosed and calm decisions reached.”
All the princes looked to Elimelech of Judah. The tribe of Judah was the one personally hurt and was the natural leader from amongst the tribes. Elimelech nodded to Ehud.
“We recognize you, Ehud son of Gerah, of Benjamin. Speak. Speak truthfully and concisely, for we have little patience for further stories and delays. It is a great evil that has occurred in Israel and Gheda is correct that things cannot remain as they have been. We must take responsibility for our errant brother, even if it means a painful lesson.”
“It is true that the woman from Judah was assaulted by the men of Givaah. For that they will be punished fully.”
“That is no punishment!” Gheda exclaimed.
“However, when this man” – Ehud pointed at Gheda – “left Givaah and the territory of Benjamin, the woman still lived! I do not know what possessed this illustrious Levite to cut her up into pieces, nor do we know if she was alive when he did so. I will not conjecture as to his political motivations in bringing us to war. However, what I do know for certain is that the men of Givaah did not kill that woman. They may be guilty of other crimes, but they are not guilty of murder!”
“This man is a witness?” Elimelech pointed at the old man.
“Yes, sir,” the old man bowed to Elimelech. “I am Natol of the tribe of Ephraim, though I have lived for some years in Givaah of Benjamin. I was there that horrible night. I gave sanctuary to Gheda, his woman and his servant. It was a frightful night that I will not forget for as long as live. I feared the men of Givaah. They are criminals that take and pillage at will. Unless you pay them. They generally leave me alone. I am poor and give them a monthly gift from my meager purse. I knew they were capable of great evil, which is why I insisted Gheda come into my house quickly. Someone must have seen him enter my house. By nightfall the house was surrounded and they were demanding Gheda come out to them, just as in the story of Sodom. However, no angels came to save us. Gheda threw his woman out to the rabble as one would throw a piece of meat to rabid dogs. We heard the men’s laughter and the woman’s screams throughout the night. At least my daughter and I did. Gheda seemed strangely pleased with himself, asked for a bed and promptly went to sleep, untroubled.”
“That is untrue!” Gheda interrupted. “I tossed and turned the entire night. But what could I do for her? I decided I might as well get some sleep.”
“He then woke up in the morning,” Natol continued, “opened the door and tells the half-dead girl on the doorstep “let’s go”. I had never seen a more callous act in my life. The poor girl had probably lost her mind already. She looked blankly at Gheda and fainted. Gheda hoisted her like the side of a cow and laid her on the back of his donkey. He trotted off without as much as a goodbye. The girl was still alive when she left Givaah.”
“You would believe him?” Gheda shouted. “You would take the word of this worthless wretch over mine? Is this evidence? The drivel of one tribeless man against a Levite? Against me? You would believe me a villain? A city-worth of men rape my woman, cause her to die and you cast aspersions of immorality upon me!? I did cut up her dead body as a sign and a message. A horrible thing had been done in Israel. I needed to wake up the tribes from their morass. We are gathered all together now. Princes, you know me. We have worked for years on our unification efforts. We are finally united in a purpose and goal as we have not been since the days of Joshua. Princes, are you men? Decide here and now, in front of all of Israel!”
“We shall decide, Gheda,” Elimelech said. “Ehud, my cousin is dead and dismembered by members of your tribe. I will not be appeased; we will not be appeased until the guilty stand in front of us for our judgment. I do not wish for stories or witnesses or promises of weak internal justice. You have until the end of the day to bring them here or we shall come fetch them ourselves with an army of all of Israel behind us. What say you, delegate of Benjamin, to that?”
Ehud looked at all the princes. He noticed Gheda’s smirk. He noticed Pinhas sitting quietly and sadly. Pinhas had remained silent though morosely attentive throughout the discussions.
“Since the days of Moses and Joshua, no tribe has judged its brother,” Ehud responded. “We have coexisted peacefully. We share the bonds of faith and marriage. The Law of Moses guides us all and the Tabernacle is our central place of worship, though few remember that unifying place. You would unify by violence what you did not achieve in peace? You would force justice down our throat? Is your interpretation of the Law superior to ours? Is strength of numbers the equivalent of truth of purpose? God has ever shown us otherwise. We too are a tribe of Israel! In this our council is adamant. We shall not give up our right, our responsibility, to judge our own. Delegates of yours are welcome to observe the trial for themselves and see how we follow the Law of Moses. But under no circumstances will we give them up. Prince Giltar added that if you think to come to us in force, the sons of Benjamin will be prepared with sharpened swords.”
“You leave us no choice then, son of Gerah. You bring this doom upon yourselves. The next time we meet shall be upon the battlefield. Run now, child of Benjamin. Run to your tribe. Tell them that the sons of Israel have gathered as we have not gathered since the destruction of the kings of Canaan. We come for justice. We come for vengeance. We come to right wrongs and to clear the land of its filth. Depart!”
Ehud looked at the stern faces of the princes. Without further word he turned to leave, heartbroken. From the corner of his eye he noted Pinhas, the High Priest of Israel. Tears streamed down Pinhas’ eyes, soiling his beautiful priestly garments.
* * * * * *
Special thanks to Dr. Yael Ziegler for her crash course on the Book of Judges and special insights into these stories. Many of the ideas here are drawn from her, particularly the horrific textual possibility that the concubine was not dead when she was dismembered…